The mission of public education in America at its inception was to prepare children for their role as citizens in a democratic nation. The primary argument put forth in support of using tax revenues to provide universal public education was that citizens must be educated and well-informed if democratic government is to be effective. If the will of the people is expressed through the actions of the government, a country will be well-governed only if the opinions of citizens are based on factual evidence, clear thinking, and a willingness to consider points of view with which they disagree. Helping all members of our society develop the skills and acquire the knowledge necessary for active and informed participation in the civic life of our country is a goal that is as important as ever today.
Learning is most effective when it takes place in an environment where students are allowed to engage in authentic activities. Within the system currently in place at most schools the only opportunity students have to participate actively in the governance of their school is to vote for Student Council members, or to serve on the Student Council. Even this limited involvement is rarely authentic. The Student Council has only as much power as a principal is willing to grant. Teachers also have only as much power as administrators are willing to allow them. Neither students nor teachers are allowed to be involved in a meaningful way when important decisions are made about, and within, our schools.
School boards may be democratically elected, but that is where democracy ends within public education. The School Board selects a Superintendent, who in turn appoints or hires administrators at both the district level and within each school. Even if teachers and students are allowed to express their opinions, the ultimate decisions about how each school is to be run are made by principals and district-level administrators. This sort of top-down bureaucratic system might be appropriate for preparation for life under an autocratic regime, but it does not prepare students for the role of citizen in a democracy.
A rigid, authoritarian approach to school governance is not only unwarranted, it is ineffective. Nobody knows better than the individuals who spend their days inside classrooms what reforms are needed to improve student achievement and the climate within our schools. Empowering students and teachers would unleash potent forces for positive and meaningful changes within our schools. It is time to open up the process of governing our schools to give students and teachers a more active role.
We inform young people within our society, quite correctly, that certain responsibilities come with the rights they are granted as adults. Conversely, if we are going to hold students and teachers accountable for their performances in the classroom, we must be willing to grant them the right to participate in structuring schools and classes in the manner they feel is most conducive to maximizing student achievement. Site-based management of our schools should be the rule, not the exception. The basic policies, procedures, and programs offered at each school should be determined by students and teachers. Each school should have a great deal of latitude, within guidelines set by the state board of education, to implement innovative alternatives to the present approach to education.
Each school should write its own constitution, consistent with the laws regarding education in each state. Ideally, the end result would be a system modeled roughly on the Constitution of the United States—a system that has served our country pretty well over the past two centuries. The Student Council would function in a manner similar to the House of Representatives. The teaching staff, or some portion thereof, should have a role similar to that of the Senate. The principal would fulfill the role of president. A school board, elected by, and consisting of, parents and community members, would act much like a Supreme Court, making certain that the policies and procedures that are adopted are consistent with the school’s constitution and with state law.
Obviously, there are many powers granted to the government of the United States that would not coincide with the powers involved in running a school. For example, it would probably be a mistake to grant schools the powers to declare war or coin money (although that would ease monetary constraints). The main role of students and teachers would be to determine policies and procedures within each school. The principal and other administrators would be charged with carrying out those policies and procedures. The principal should be given the power to veto policies passed by the students and teachers, but the veto could be over-ridden by a two-thirds vote of both teachers and students. The details should be worked out school by school, a process that would be very educational in and of itself. Modeling the governance system of our schools along the lines of the basic structure of government laid out by the United States Constitution would give students the opportunity to develop civic skills in a highly effective manner, by participating actively and authentically in the governance of their schools.
It is time to demonstrate our faith in democracy by eliminating the bureaucratic regimes that are presently in place within public education. If we are willing to give students, teachers, and parents the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the governance of our schools, we will not only improve public education, we will improve the quality of our government by preparing students more effectively for active and informed participation as citizens.